Category Archives: theatre

Like a Writing Desk

Two of my favourite things in the world are theatre and radio, which is why it was so exciting when Aden Rolfe emailed me to tell me his multi-awarded radio play Like a Writing Desk is about to air on Radio National.

I was in the middle of something else and very involved as it aired, so I am only listening to it now, and putting a link here in order to never lose it. As should you, because radio plays are almost certainly in the future of theatre, as well.

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‘How to tell the difference between a good play and a poor one’ in seven easy scenes

I just found something extremely merry-making.

Looking through my old, unsorted writing archives for a text I couldn’t find, I instead came across a gem of a project, something I had totally forgotten about.

In 2010, Aden Rolfe asked me to write something on playwrighting for the Emerging Writers Festival Reader, vol.2, which he was editing that year. Aden wanted something experimental and visually interesting. I thought it was a great idea.

So I wrote a sort of… I wrote something-like-a-play, about something-like-playwrighting – but stay with me here – except that during this time I was neighbours with Black Lung, and was regularly having dinner on their roof and discussing the physical limits of playwrighting with Thomas Henning. And so the article/play came out as a fairly demented piece.

I have no idea what the poor Emerging Writers, who bought the Reader, thought about it: whether they understood any of it, whether it even made sense to them. But Aden was happy, and I was extremely pleased with myself. At the time, I was a) too busy with finishing my Honours Thesis to really self-promote, and b) thought of it as tasteless and boorish. Consequently, I don’t think anyone knows about this piece! Even I had forgotten! That is, until I accidentally found it on my computer today, and spent the 2 minutes it takes to read in a fit of giggles.

For historical record, here it is. It is an embedded PDF, because the formating, you will soon notice, is important.

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Set design and metaphor

Nothing is quite as electrifying in theatre as a good stage metaphor, and no theatre discipline can do stage metaphor quite as BIG as set design.

I met Chloe Lamford last night – very beautifully and kindly, she treated my completely trashed-from-jetlag self with a discounted theatre ticket. Today, I am watching this trailer, which makes Katie Mitchell’s production of Lungs for Schaubuehne almost entirely about the set. Deservedly, I think. The way in which it creates metaphor is absolutely extraordinary.

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It has arrived: a review in pictures (The Lifted Brow)

The postman brought it on Saturday.

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It is colourful.

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It has beautiful design.

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And me inside!

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It’s printed on paper (paper!).

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It folds in the middle (folds!).

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It’s a column.

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A regular column.

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On theatre.

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And life.

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On theatre and life. And love, and sex, and friendship, and everything around theatre.

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I am so proud.

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Shout-outs

Australian Script Centre has kicked off a new series of long-form essays on the state of the Australian theatre (playwrighting, but not just). The inaugural essay has just been published: it is the inimitable Alison Croggon, writing on the state of theatre criticism in Australia. The essay is long, exhaustive, and superb, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Meanwhile, one of the young and promising critics that Alison singles out for praise in the above essay, Jane Howard, has just launched a personal newsletter. (I must say I’m not sure how to link to something that exists via email, so I am linking to her blog announcement thereof, which is perhaps a bit lame.) Jane is in Melbourne to write about about Next Wave, the biennial festival of emerging artists that explicitly nurtures experimental work. From what I’ve read so far of Jane’s newsletter, it is as experimental and interesting as the festival itself. I also highly recommend.

Next Wave has also started, of course. I wish I had the time to engage in either long-form or experimental criticism, or both, of the many, many works that will be showing in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, between the two subjects I am teaching, and the two long commissions I need to finish, I feel like I’ll be lucky if I find time to tweet about them. Many things are going to be published in reputable media, of course – including my review of Next Wave – but with a bit of a delay. Meanwhile, enjoy Jane and Alison’s writings.

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The Conversation: Sex, rape and role models – how women in comedy perform

Adrienne Truscott (MICF)

Adrienne Truscott (MICF)

Two performance artists in this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) – the UK’s Bryony Kimmings and American Adrienne Truscott – have a certain flavour of humour: it’s the knowing, self-deprecating humour of the culturally dispossessed, of survivors and victims. And yes, they’re both women.

Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! is Adrienne Truscott’s stand-up show about rape. In it, Truscott counters the stated prerogative of male comedians to tell rape jokes with a confronting routine in which she relentlessly does the same.

Her wit spares neither them, nor hip-hop artists rapping about date rape, nor Republican politicians expounding on “legitimate rape”, nor men in the audience.

Truscott also gets to explain why animal analogies are inadequate through progeny-eating gerbils. It is a bracing, uncomfortable, rewarding show. Is it funny, though? That depends on how you look at it.

The topic of “women in comedy” is endlessly controversial. Where are the women? Are there enough of them? Are women even funny?

The latter is apparently such a valid question that it has been regularly asked, with a straight face, by The Guardian, Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and possibly every other major media publication.

British-American author Christopher Hitchens famously stated in Vanity Fair in 2007: they are not. Those that were funny, he conceded, were mostly “hefty or dykey or Jewish,” therefore practically men themselves.

Coming to this question from a performance studies viewpoint – as opposed to being an expert in stand-up comedy like Hitchens – the question seems almost otherworldly. Let me explain.

Origins of performance art

In the second half of the 20th century, artists’ interest in real time, real space, real human bodies, real human presence and real human experience resulted in the development of what we call “performance art”: art inextricably linked to the artist physically producing it.

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. (Andrew Russeth)

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. (Andrew Russeth)

The practice originated in the visual arts scene of 1950s and 1960s America. In Europe, slightly later, it became known simply as “performance”, while in the UK, once it reached theatre artists in the 1980s and 1990s, it became known as “live art” (from art historian RoseLee Goldberg’s seminal history of performance art).

Performance art encompasses a wide range of practices but the two people that defined the term, almost to the point of cliche, are Japanese artist Yoko Ono and Serbian-born artist Marina Abramović. In the 1960s and 1970s, they let the presence of their own body make the artistic statement: Ono letting the spectators cut up her clothing in Cut Piece (1965); Ono and Lennon protesting the Vietnam War in a bed-in (1969); Abramović letting gallery visitors use various sharp objects, knives and a gun on her body in Rhythm 0 (1974); or leaning into a bow and arrow in Rest Energy (1980).

Performance art allowed feminist female artists to effectively challenge that standard object of representation in art – the female body. A living, breathing, talking, reacting woman could subvert, challenge, deconstruct the idealised notion of women as passive objects of beauty and desire. She could challenge the audience with her realness, and raise such taboo issues as menstruation, ageing, or sexual identity. The history of female art and the history of performance art are inextricably intertwined.

The vocabulary of performance developed by female artists emphasised solo performance, a strong element of autobiography or personal experience, veiled social critique, and interaction with the audience. Sort of like comedy, you see, apart from not being funny.

Except that it often is. It is no wonder that many women in this year’s MICF are performance artists, not career comediennes – the impulse behind these two forms is similar, and so is their flavour of humour. As Bryony Kimmings said last year in the London Evening Standard:

Women are funnier because we suffer more.

Consider Marina Abramović’s video work, in which she manically brushes her hair for 50 minutes, repeating the titular phrase, “Art must be beautiful. Artist must be beautiful”. If you don’t hear the sarcasm, you’re missing the point of the work. It is the same flavour of barbed sarcasm that Adrienne Truscott uses when she opens her comedy show with a bona fide rape joke, and stands in front of us naked from the waist down.

The vulnerability of their bodies is an angry statement, but this angry vulnerability is almost defining of women’s life. It does not preclude humour.

Bryony Kimmings

This strategy of escalating the sexualisation of the female body until it is funny also appears in Bryony Kimmings’ Sex Idiot at MICF where she performs a long interpretive dance sequence that mimics sexual intercourse.

Bryonny Kimmings in Sex Idiot. (MICF)

Bryonny Kimmings in Sex Idiot. (MICF)

Sex Idiot is an autobiographical journey through Kimmings’ relationship history while she is trying to inform previous partners of her positive STI test. It has that familiar emotional tone of self-deprecation, melancholy and wise acceptance – again, tone less akin to a mating call than to cotton-picking songs of American slaves.

It is also funny, outrageously so. But it is an emotionally complex humour: as Kimmings creates ever more hilarious performance artworks to honour each one of her previous relationships, we laugh at her disappointments, her poor choices, her wasted opportunities, her misapplied bravado. It is a journey that ends rewardingly, in rich introspection.

 

But the most extraordinary feminist performance currently showing in Melbourne is Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel, also created by Kimmings. Not officially a part of the Comedy Festival, but showing at Theatre Works as part of Festival of Live Art (FOLA).

It is a joint endeavour between Kimmings and her 11-year-old niece Taylor, in which they try to develop an appropriate role-model for tween girls. The show is emotionally hard-hitting in unexpected ways. It juxtaposes Taylor’s innocent preteen imagination with Kimmings’ adult protectiveness and cynicism, and it is sometimes very funny, and sometimes heart-wrenching.

Nothing like a dry treatise in sexualisation of children, it left everyone in the audience sobbing quite unashamedly. It is a powerful example of how the emotional nuance of feminist performance can deliver a deeply felt social analysis.

Australian academic Germaine Greer famously accused female artists of exhibitionism and narcissism. This is not so different from accusing women comics of only talking about vaginas and men. Vanity Fair may be right to say that, until very recently, all female comedy could be divided into two camps: self-deprecating or men-hating. But, to some extent, this should be a self-resolving problem.

As Gloria Steinem pointed out, feminism is inextricably related to telling stories women can recognise as being about themselves.

When talking about rape, promiscuous women and the sexualisation of children stops being a rebellious act, feminist performance will naturally move on.

 

Bryony Kimmings Sex Idiot runs until April 5.

Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model runs until April 6.

Adrienne Truscott’s Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! runs until April 20.

This article was first published in The Conversation on 3 April 2014, and is here reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence, more for my own archival purposes than anything else.

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Review: Daniel Schlusser Ensemble: M+M (way overdue)

While nominally based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Daniel Schlusser’s M+M does not attempt to represent the text: a perhaps wise decision given that the novel is arguably – more than 500 theatrical versions later – fundamentally unstageable.

Unwieldy and expansive in both size and scope, Master and Margarita weaves three narratives wildly disparate in theme and tone: a hilarious grotesque in which the Devil with his entourage (including the vodka-swilling cat Behemoth) wreaks havoc on the 1930s Moscow; the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, seen from the perspective of Pontius Pilate, troubled both by his conscience and a raging headache; and the story of Margarita, who makes a pact with the Devil to save her lover, the imprisoned author of a novel about Christ in the anti-religious Soviet Union.

It is a perplexing work and has been read as an hommage to Goethe’s Faust, a denunciation of the human condition under Communism, a Menippean satire on Moscow’s literary circles, a Tolstoyan exploration of Christian ethics, an absurdist grotesque in the vein of Gogol and Kharms, and an occult fantasy, richly informed by Freemason and medieval symbology.

Any familiarity with the novel, however, may be a hindrance more than an aid: M+M uses Bulgakov’s life and work merely as the starting point for an original theatrical exploration. Those searching for familiar characters and plot points may fail to grasp the peculiar beauty of this production.

This review was published in Guardian Australia on 14 October 2013. Read the whole review here.

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Adelaide Festival (somewhat overdue)

Dear reader,

At the beginning of March, I went to Adelaide Festival as a member of the Guardian Australia team, and I spent six or seven intense days writing, interviewing, podcasting, and occasionally eating and sleeping. It was a wonderful, and very worthwhile experience. During these few days, I produced a miraculous amount of writing.

I reviewed Adelaide Festival shows:
- Sadeh 21, by Batsheva Dance Company, one of the best performance works I’ve since in my entire life. Like all best dance, it was both indescribable and sublime.
- The Seagull, by State Theatre Company, which was unfortunately very poorly made. I felt cornered by this production, which I could not rate very highly, and I wondered why it was included in the Festival program – it couldn’t compete with the high calibre of international work. The Seagull is such an important play for the history of acting: not just because Chekhov is famous for extremely nuanced naturalism, but also because Stanislavsky practically developed his famed ‘method’ (you know, like ‘method’ acting?) while directing the first serious premiere of The Seagull. To this day, Moscow Art Theatre has a seagull in its emblem to mark the importance of this play to its artistic project. So, you cannot stage this play with imprecise acting, with a lack of nuance. There are playwrights and plays in which very careful naturalistic acting is not that important: Brecht, for example; expressionists; Moliere; even Beckett. But Chekhov dies on stage if the acting is not fine. If you take nuance out of Chekhov, there is nothing left to talk about.
- Blackout, by Stone/Castro Project. I love physical theatre, but it requires extremely well-rounded performers, trained both in movement and acting. This work was more ambitious, I felt, than many of the performers in its big cast could do. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it, and it was worth our while, because a highly ambitious work that doesn’t quite fulfill its promise is almost always more interesting than a successful work of modest ambition.
- Continuum, by Australian String Quartet. This was a really great experience, because 1) both the program and ASQ were amazing, 2) I probably appreciated it beyond the average because I just very rarely get to attend classical music recitals these days, 3) I never ever review classical music, and 4) I realised I do actually know a thing or two about it.

At Adelaide Fringe, I saw:
- Glory Box, by Finucane & Smith. I find Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith’s bizarre burlesque a bit hit-and-miss. They are such an unavoidable presence in Melbourne, so definitive of alternative burlesque here, that one by necessity sees a lot of their work, and it’s uneven both in concept and in execution. But this one worked perfectly for me. Perhaps because I had just returned from Western Europe, and was a bit fatigued by the world in which women with armpit hair are inconceivable, it just felt great to experience a terrifying striptease in which milk and cornflakes became horror props, a diva in a dress with a sequined vagina pattern, and similar over-the-top feminine self-expression. It was genuinely cathartic. (As I get older, and I put less and less effort in not looking like a boy – because I naturally look like a boy – the more I genuinely enjoy silly femininity. Perhaps because I feel less oppressed by it? Who knows.)
- Run Girl Run, by Grit Theatre, which I thought was simple, but clever, but simple. In Australia, live art and performance basically happen in Sydney, which has a rich living performance culture centred around the university programs and Performance Space. Melbourne has never had that. As a result, ‘live art’ and ‘performance’ in Melbourne tends to be made by artists basically trained in theatre, not specifically in performance. The works often seem a bit naive, a bit unaware of the history of the form, their own artistic context. This was definitely one such work. Nonetheless, it was good. But simple.

I interviewed:
- Ohad Naharin of Batsheva Dance Company. I thought Naharin would be a stern and scary person, because I’ve found his choreographies cerebral and abstract – but he was genuinely one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I was so taken by his description of his work. Dancers who get to train with Batsheva Dance Company are very, very lucky people (I think).
- Alexander Devriendt of Ontroerend Goed. The interview overran by 2 hours, I bummed cigarettes off Alexander, we were talking about how to make a theatre show about love, I told him how abused I feel about O.G.’s show ‘Internal’… It was a slightly insane process, but I was very glad to have a chance to chat with one of my biggest idols of contemporary theatre. I am a huge fan of Ontroerend Goed, and it was amazing to be able to quiz Devriendt on his process, motivations, and ideas.
- Robert Lepage, of himself. I had such a good time talking to Lepage, who has such an interesting mind – I mean, we were talking about the birth of existentialism, the origin of theatre in communion, about urban sprawl… – that I really wanted to revisit his work, which I had often found maximalist, spread rather thinly. I am now looking forward to seeing his works with a better insight into the man that he is.

On the podcast, you can hear me:
- on episode foud, discussing Batsheva’s Sadeh21, and
- on episode five, interviewing Sharon Draper from the Australian String Quartet, and summarising my experience of the whole festival.

And I also did a video interview with Paolo Castro, with Bill Code, but you can’t see or hear me, I am just there.

(brief) RW: Dance of Death

(This will be brief and totally fail to mention some essential aspects of theatre – acting, lighting, sound – in order to make a focused argument with a limited palette of means. Since I am going to be critical of the production, anything not mentioned – acting, lighting, sound – generally did not participate in the failure of the production.)

Matthew Lutton’s Dance of Death is the weakest production I’ve seen at the Malthouse in a long time, jostling with some of the most perfunctory stagings of Michael Kantor’s. It is so disjontedly and confusingly put together, every obvious entry point (who wrote it, what it is about, what it tries to do) requires such long-winded guesswork, that I don’t even know where to begin with my reflection.

August Strindberg’s play about the purgatorial misery of patriarchal marriage, replete with glib misogyny, was re-written by Friedrich Durrenmatt in 1969 as a parody of both Western bourgeois marriage and Western bourgeois drama intent on depicting it as a tragedy, and not, I don’t know, a blip of history that would be moribund by the 1960s anyway. The Malthouse production stages the latter text, in a further reworking by Tom Holloway.

Holloway mainly seems to have added lots of fairly repetitive cursing, which weighs the technically sound Durrenmatt down with a lot of glib humour, and derails the concept almost completely. Durrenmatt’s deconstruction is a logical response of the culture and the theatre of his time to Strinberg; it is a dialogue of two moments in history (including history of theatre). What Holloway’s voice adds to this conversation, if anything, is the ignorance and insularity of Melbourne 2013: we don’t understand what’s going on over there, we don’t see how it reflects on us over here, but we could create some nice stage images. And we’ll make everyone speak in local vernacular, because we know that people will laugh. It is like that moment in which an interesting and engrossing conversation is hijacked by a fresh young graduate who just really wants to talk to these people; and everyone politely waits until he has finished, hoping they won’t lose the thread of the conversation. (I apologise if my language is harsh. I think this is the most accurate analogy.)

Lutton’s staging is a pastiche that clearly isn’t intentional. There are references to a boxing ring and fight rounds (per Durrenmatt), but the set is a glass box in traverse. This is actually quite nice – the effect is that of an aquarium – but the physical constraints of the space clash with the constant references to characters having been to other places outside, just moments ago. There is modern language, but period costume. There is entering and exiting, but nobody can leave the aquarium. There are echoes of sets and effects popularised in Australia by Andrews, Schlusser, Stone – but to no obvious unified goal.

The first third of the narrative is gripping, as we watch a married couple descend from a chat into a full-blown domestic argument with recognisable automatism (there is parody in it, but there is parody in every real-life ongoing domestic dispute). However, once they’ve arrived into the fight, Alice and Edgar can’t get out, because the play won’t move. It quickly becomes a hostage situation: Alice and Edgar are trapped for eternity in their marriage, and the audience is trapped in the theatre with them, waiting out the improbable plot twists and personality changes. It all feels exactly like a certain kind of low-grade Hollywood film, in which the plot turns more wildly, and faster, the closer we are getting to the end; the characters’ personalities keep stretching in order to fill the ever-expanding revelations about their past actions; and it all seems written by a script-robot.

And then there is the wildly broad tone of the production. It is played bleak and violent and shoutingly, and it is as exhausting to be privy to a staged domestic as to a real one. But the tone keeps slipping into broad-farcical (courtesy of swearing); it is as if Lutton and Holloway want to tell a tragedy, but keep getting fits of giggles. It could, at a stretch, work as a tragicomedy if the plot referred to a known reality of anyone, anywhere, today. However, it does not, and cannot. The plot is Durrentmatt’s farce of the 19th-century bourgeois drama. The satire of his work is directed towards the self-dramatising excess of the entire genre. Oh, but how the creative team disagrees with me on that point…! And how they seem to want the tragedy of Strindberg AND the humour of Durrenmatt without listening to the nuances in the conversation between the two – because the conversation is maybe too complicated, and about ideology and politics and other such things that Australian culture is not too accustomed to talking about.

In all this confusion of intent and effect, what I lost was any sense of what this production positively wanted to say. It was definitely something designed by a committee, but I couldn’t even tell you what the committee was aiming at. Was it a good bourgeois marriage drama? Or a middle-class farce? Or a well-made tragedy from the dramatic canon? Irreverent young take on a classical author?

But here is what it is not: an exploration of the currently hotly debated institution of marriage; a formal argument about the ideology inherent in theatrical staging; a postmodern conversation with the dramatic history; a Beckettian existential contemplation; or a bleak parody of a tired genre that is genuinely fun to watch.

** Disclaimer: I am a member of the Malthouse Theatre Artistic Counsel in 2013, which means I might have to provide some structured feedback on the 2013 season, some time in the future.

DANCE OF DEATH
by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
English text by Tom Holloway
Directed by Matthew Lutton
Set & Costume Design Dale Ferguson
Lighting Design Paul Jackson
Composition & Sound Design Kelly Ryall,
Cast Jacek Koman, Belinda McClory, David Paterson,
18 April – 19 May, Beckett Theatre, Malthouse.

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Schaubühne: The Enemy of the People (not quite a review)

Ein Volksfeind. Photo credits: Arno Declair, 2012.

Something more needs to be written about Thomas Ostermeier’s work, if purely because he has been a formative influence on contemporary Australian theatre. Ostermeier is the major influence on Australia’s two most prominent directors of classics: Benedict Andrews (through his work at Berlin’s Schaubühne), whose Australian productions have replicated the Schaubühne aesthetic (possibly to the point of plagiarism, but then, the question of plagiarism in theatre is a fraught one); and Simon Stone (through the influence of Andrews, but not just). However, I don’t quite have the capacity to do that in this text, which will limit itself to a short list of notes on Ostermeier’s new work, a version of Ibsen’s Ein Volksfeind / The Enemy of the People.

1. THE PLAY
I have seen two productions of Ein Volksfeind in Germany this year (the other was by Theater Bonn at Theatertreffen), and neither quite hit the bull’s eye. On the surface, it is a play written for 2012: a study of greedy capital compromising the common good, and the entire society with it. Dr Thomas Stockmann discovers that the spa baths, the motor of development and prosperity of his small town, are contaminated by the waste from the local tannery, and poisoning, rather than curing its visitors. As he tries to mobilise the public, however, he discovers that everybody has an interest to protect. His brother, the town mayor, is more concerned about the effect on the local economy. Hovstad and Billing, his friends journalists, are eager to break the story until the financing of their paper is threatened. The townspeople don’t want to lose business to the neighbouring towns, which are building their own spas. His own family is uncertain.

However, Ibsen’s analysis of the social ills is so of his time and so particular to him, that the play starts to hiccup just when it seems it might deliver some great insight into the global banking crisis. Ibsen, the great liberal of the 19th century, has Stockmann proclaim that the individual is always superior to the multitude, that this society corrupts, that the truth cannot be the truth of the masses, too easily swayed by demagogues. “A minority may be right; a majority is always wrong.” And -

“…the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone.”

But Ibsen is also, constantly, a playwright interested in people shaped by their social vices. Stockmann is a vain man, a stubborn man. His brother an astute politician. His friends journalists, Hovstad and Billing, media opportunists. Only Stockmann’s daughter keeps a clean record of idealism, but this is her low social stakes talking. Like all other Ibsen’s plays, so is this one not really about politics, but about people. It has characters looking for an ethical peace of mind, not for social change.

Continue reading “Schaubühne: The Enemy of the People (not quite a review)” »

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